'The Magician' - Movie Review

I've never been interested in Ingmar Bergman's work. I saw one or two of them many years ago and dismissed him. In recent years, with an increasing academic interest in movies, I've been reminded - repeatedly - that he's considered one of the greatest directors who ever lived by pretty much every film critic and historian who ever lived. So when I came across a reference to "The Magician" (1958) and found that the library had a Criterion copy on DVD, I decided to give it a shot. Quotes to be found over at Rotten Tomatoes:

  • "The movie has elements of Gothic horror and philosophy, along with lusty, low comedy rolls."
  • "It is one of Bergman's most tightly structured and frightening films."
  • "Like the subject it portrays, it is a movie that genuinely seems to sense the guilty delight of life's unending irony."
  • "Tremendously important Bergman, even it it doesn't have the instant cachet of his more famous and direct movies."
  • "Both a rebuke to critics and a confession of charlatanism, The Magician puts forward a one-of-a-kind examination of the problem of truth in life and in art."
  • "An enigmatic, complex and immensely enjoyable film."

Sounds great, right?

The movie opens in a coach pulled by two horses going through a wood. Inside we have the mute magician, Albert Vogler, his assistant Mr. Aman, their manager Tubal, and "Granny Vogler." They constitute the traveling troupe "Vogler's Magnetic Health Theatre." In the woods (following what I admit was one of the most glorious bits of cinematography I've ever seen, of the coach coming through mist among the trees) they find a dying alcoholic actor who immediately spots Vogler's fake beard and dyed hair, and wonders what else is fake. Vogler is clearly fascinated by the guy, but immediately drops him in a puddle. And then packs him into the coach to take with. So they arrive at the next town with a corpse in the carriage, and are welcomed by the police because their reputation has preceded them. They're interrogated and mocked by the chief of police and the very scientifically minded minister of health, and made to perform.

The acting and story structure seem like they're straight out of the silent era of film - everything massively exaggerated. The human interactions are absurd, with people spouting sophomoric philosophy at each other rather than having conversations. Critics have concluded that the movie says many deep things about the nature of illusion (particularly film), love, life, and death (and I'd throw "pride" in there too), but at its core a movie needs to either have a good story or be immensely compelling in some other way. The story is ridiculous, and obviously I didn't find it compelling.

So much for Bergman.